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Nonfiction Observations Systems

Commute Through the Jail.

To get in, out, and through the jail one must go through a series of locked doors. The doors are both taller and wider than standard doors; they are also thicker and made out of metal. Next to each door on the wall is a small silver panel, perhaps the size of two playing cards, that has a small silver button and a flat speaker. Several cameras are bolted to the ceiling near the doors.

“Central control” monitors all the doors through the cameras and speakers. Pushing the button on the silver panel alerts central control that someone wants to pass through. After central control looks you over on the camera, they unlock the door. When the bolt disengages, a loud and jarring “CLICK” bounces off the cinderblock walls and concrete floor. You may then pull or push the door open.

People can wait several minutes before central control unlocks the door. We’re all accustomed to adding five to ten minutes to our commute through the jail.

When I first started working there, I was advised to be patient:

  • “The officers will yell at you if you push the button too much.”
  • “The officers learn who is patient and who is not, and if they know you’re not patient, they might make you wait longer.”

If you wish to call an elevator, you push the button as you would with any other elevator. However, you’re not actually calling the elevator; you’re asking central control to bring it to your floor. As with any other door, there is a silver panel with a speaker and button nearby.

“What floor?” a voice usually asks through the speaker.

You answer into the speaker and, when the elevator arrives, the button to your floor is often lighted. If central control didn’t ask you what floor you wanted before you boarded the elevator, there is also a speaker, paired with a camera, inside the elevator. The floor buttons are “placebo buttons“; nothing happens when you push them.[1. Everyone shares the elevators: Officers, inmates, ancillary staff, visitors. That is why the elevator buttons are “placebo” buttons.]

If central control recognizes an officer in the elevator, sometimes central control becomes mischievous: The entire button panel will light up simultaneously and the elevator looks like it will stop on every floor. After everyone has chortled, all the lighted buttons will darken except for the button for the floor the officer wants.

During my first few weeks in the jail, I often was unsure where I was going, particularly when I was trying to exit the building. (There are no “exit” signs and all the doors and corridors look the same.) Upon stepping out of the elevator, I would look confused and lost.

“Over here,” a voice would call through a panel ten feet in front of me.

“Thank you,” I would say as I tread through the empty corridor. If I didn’t know where to go next, the same voice would call through a farther speaker, “Down here. Go through this door, then turn right.”

These were creepy reminders: People are watching you.

Now that I know how to get in and out of jail with confidence (which helps boost one’s sense of competence in general), central control rarely talks to me through the speakers.

A few weeks ago, central control was extraordinarily attentive. Every door unlocked as I approached it. I didn’t need to push any buttons. I preemptively spoke into the speaker at the elevator to request the floor I wanted. The elevator doors slid open a few seconds later and the button for the floor I wanted was already lit.

It felt like victory: I did not have to wait. I did not have to stop walking. Doors literally unlocked for me.

For a moment, it almost felt like God was watching, that God was opening doors, that God was showing me The Path.

Except it wasn’t God. It was an officer in central control who, for whatever reason, decided that it was worth his or her time to make my trip go smoothly.


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